Jesse Singal takes apart a bad paper on sex

October 25, 2023 • 11:30 am

I don’t think I’ve analyzed this paper on my site, but, since it came out recently, it’s become well known among rational biologists for being tendentious, ideologically based, and largely incoherent, something you might intuit from its title. You can read it by clicking on the screenshot below:

The paper’s object is to dismantle the “simplistic” views of sex as being binary, because there is variation of things like hormones and other physiological and biochemical conditions within each sex, and somehow using the concepts of “male” and “female” obscures this variation. And that obscuring is harmful. Here are a few excerpts:

Our collective overreliance upon the simplistic heuristic of “sex” in data collection, hypothesis formation, analyses, and data interpretation leads to inaccurate and underspecified scientific knowledge. Uncritically dividing subjects into “female” and “male” categories (or other hypersimplistic models) obscures relevant physiologies and precludes the possibility of more specific (and more accurate) analyses. This obscuring effect of “sex” was elegantly demonstrated in a recent neuroendocrine study, where researchers analyzed their data by “sex” and then by estrous stage. Their analysis revealed that collapsing sex category hid the dynamic nature of ovarian hormones (Rocks et al., 2022): if the experiment had assumed the internal coherence of sex categories (as is common practice), important dynamics within these categories would have been overlooked to the detriment of our scientific understanding.

You probably see that this is itself incoherent, as to see variation in the estrous cycle, which certainly exists within females, you first have to identify the subjects as female. They’re assuming a sex binary, and then telling us that it’s harmful because. . .  well, I don’t understand what they’re saying, and neither, as you can read below, does Jesse Singal (see below).

The paper has an overt ideological premise: the dismantling of the sex binary is necessary to empower those people who don’t feel like they’re members of one sex or another:

In addition to impeding rigorous science, our continued used of “sex” in basic and biomedical research perpetuates misconceptions that legitimize harmful social and medical practices. In human-oriented research, simplistic (and often binary) models of sex pathologize trans, non-binary, and gender nonconforming people (as discussed during the SBN 2022 Symposium on Hormones and Trans Health). And those studies that do focus on the needs and interests of these populations are treated as “niche” and marginal to the fields they contribute to (Aghi et al., 2022). Current

First of all, trans people are members of one sex that feel like they are members of another, which assumes a sex binary. Also, non-binary and gender nonconforming people are not “pathologized” simply by defining sex as the condition of having the apparatus for making either large, immobile gametes (females) or small mobile ones (males).  Nonbinary and gender nonconforming people are almost invariably members of one sex or the other, even if they don’t feel like it, and that’s a fact. If there’s any “pathologizing”, it’s done by bigots, not by a scientific definition.

Here’s the paper’s tendentious conclusion:

To be clear: this is a call-to-arms. This is not a how-to or a roadmap. This is an invitation to continue the conversations begun in the SBN 2022 Symposium on Hormones and Trans Health. With the enclosed guidance and our collective creativity, we believe that the behavioral neuroendocrinology community is well-positioned to implement this deconstructionist approach in lieu of binary sex frameworks, to move away from this hypersimplistic sex model and conceptualize “sex” (and non-sexed) physiologies as multiple, interacting, variable, and unbounded by gendered limitations.

A real scientific paper is not a “call to arms”, and this one is almost duplicitous in trying to reject the idea of sex by saying that within sexes there is meaningful biological variation that needs to be studied. But who could possibly object to that? Carole Hooven notes this in a tweet:

Jesse Singal, who’s very good at analyzing papers is (like me) baffled by this one, as you can see from the title of his Substack article below. Click to read:

Singal on the ideological motivation of the authors:

In my view, this paper is the latest example of what has become a yearslong effort on the part of some left-leaning scientists, activists, and journalists: fuzzing up the concept of biological sex as much as possible, attempting to turn it into a troubled, subjective, unknowable mystery.

This movement seeks to distract from the fact that more than 99% of people can be described as straightforwardly male or female, solely (as I see it) in the service of a single goal: making sure no one can ever claim someone who says they are a man or a woman or nonbinary isn’t really that thing. That is, if it’s not only cruel or mean but scientifically inaccurate to point to a trans woman and say “That’s really a male!” then — the thinking goes — this will advance the cause of justice. [JAC: Actually, the figure of those who conform to the sex binary is about 99.982%.]

I’ve argued in the above-linked post that this causes a lot of shoddy and confused thinking, and is unnecessary. There are all sorts of moral arguments for treating trans people how they would like to be treated that don’t rely on the belief that they are really in some biological sex, X or Y or Z. You see the same logical leaps over and over again. In this paper, for example, Massa and her colleagues argue that “the use of simplistic (and often binary) models of sex ignores the existence of intersex, trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people,” without explaining what this means. But it doesn’t necessarily follow. If you point out that someone is biologically male or female in a context where that matters, you’re of course not denying the possibility that they don’t identify with that sex or might seek to change it to the extent biomedical technology allows. In fact, until recently this was the Trans 101 definition of. . . well, being trans! It described the condition of having a gender identity at odds with your biological sex.

As for the variation of the ovarian cycle somehow eroding the sex binary, demonstrated in mice, he says this (the authors cited a paper by Rocks et al. from 2022)

This is a very odd choice of paper for Massa and her colleagues to present as evidence that sex categories aren’t “internally coherent.” (For what it’s worth, I asked a philosopher if this term has an agreed-upon meeting and he said it didn’t. I also emailed Massa to ask her what definition of the term she was relying on, and didn’t hear back. The Rocks team didn’t return an email, either.)

It’s an odd choice because Rocks and his colleagues certainly view sex as internally coherent in their paper! They don’t even define the terms in question — male and female — because of course, anyone reading the journal Biology of Sex Difference already knows what they mean — the male mice are the one who produce the small gametes (sperm), while the female mice are the ones who produce the large gametes (eggs). There’s nothing incoherent here, and no, gesturing vaguely at (say) murine disorders of sex development doesn’t really change that. Just because there is some fuzziness at the edges of these categories doesn’t mean the categories themselves aren’t exceptionally useful — vital, even. For example, Rocks and his colleagues also include charts like this. . .

. . . . . . and it just seems pretty clear that they somehow knew exactly which the male versus female mice were. They couldn’t have really run their reanalyses otherwise.

Note that everything is divided up by “male” and  “female” (click to enlarge):

He concludes, correctly, after quoting some social-justice-speak from Massa et al. (estrus fluctuations apply to “cis women, non-binary individuals, and transgender men who menstruate”, all of which of course are biological females):

These obviously aren’t reactionaries — they know how to speak the necessary social justice lingo to ensure their paper gets published without much protest. But they’re also pointing out that however one identifies, there’s still a biological sex lurking underneath that has explanatory power. Yes, in this case, factoring in the estrous cycle provides far more data than merely factoring in sex, but the former depends on the latter. If you didn’t have the concept of sex, and if you can’t easily and accurately identify which are the male versus female mice, you wouldn’t be able to run these analyses!

And his conclusion:

But I will say that I’ve noticed a pattern where when I look into these claims about the supposed fuzziness and lack of importance of the basic male/female difference, I often find the arguments 1.) are straightforwardly wrong or misleading, 2.) collapse into something obvious, 3.) are so hard to follow, in terms of their basic logic (rather than technical language), that I don’t know what to make of them, or 4.) are quite philosophically muddled, such as by confusing and freely mixing distinct terms like sex, gender, and gender identity.

In the end, Singal gets humble and says that he might be missing something and begs his readers to explain what it might be that he’s doesn’t get. But read the paper for yourself and see if it doesn’t fit into one or more of the four categories above.

20 thoughts on “Jesse Singal takes apart a bad paper on sex

  1. I was so surprised to see this paper in Hormones and Behavior, a pretty good journal, touted on another biologist’s blog as “the neuroendocrinologists strike back”, that I checked to see just who these particular neuroendocrinologists are. I quote from their institutional and personal web pages:

    1. Megan G Massa
    Department of Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology, Emory University, Atlanta, GA

    B.A., Neuroscience (English minor), Bowdoin College, 2014
    Ph.D., Neuroscience (Graduate Certificate in Writing Pedagogy), UCLA, 2022

    NBB 190 – Political (Neuro)Science
    NBB 401W – Perspectives in Neuroscience and Behavior [fall semesters]
    Upper-level – Feminist Neuroscience (in development)

    Megan Massa joined Emory NBB as an assistant teaching professor in the Fall of 2023. Most of their academic journey has focused on the study of neuroendocrinology, and they are particularly interested in the effects of estrogens and androgens (e.g., estradiol and testosterone, respectively) on behavior and disease.

    Dr. Massa engages queer and feminist theories alongside scholarship from science and technology studies to interrogate how social frameworks contribute to the neuroscientific study of sexed physiologies.

    I practice student-centered, feedback-driven critical pedagogy grounded in active learning that integrates neuroscience with queer and feminist theories.

    2. Krisha Aghi
    Department of Integrative Biology and Physiology, University of California Los Angeles,

    IRACDA postdoc
    I am a South Asian, disabled, trans woman of color and my overarching academic goals are aligned firmly with my marginalized identities. As a trans woman of color I am concerned with the ongoing increase of anti-trans sentiment and legislation that weaponizes incorrect principles and interpretations of biology. I want to work within my academic capacity to bring new perspectives to the field of neuroendocrinology that are not just trans-inclusive but rigorize the field by incorporating a trans perspective. My goals to achieve this are two-fold: First, to conduct research on gonadal steroids and corticosteroids and examine how neural function is precisely modulated by said hormones in a sex-category independent manner, and second, to rigorize how neuroendocrinology is taught by incorporating a sex variable based framework.  I am particularly focused on improving the quality of life of trans people of color, and center my work within academia for them. I am excited to be a part of the IRACDA program and am looking forward to honing both my pedagogical and research skills with a community of incredible scholars.

    3. MJ Hill
    Department of Sociology, University of California Los Angeles,

    MJ Hill is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles. They study how people produce, use, and transform social categories and related phenomena, particularly gender and race. Their dissertation examines how people produce the boundaries and meanings of gender categories in the course of their daily lives and how they use gender to accomplish both explicitly and indirectly gendered projects.
    So an assistant teaching professor, a beginning postdoc, and a sociology grad student, each with an explicity extra-scientific social agenda.
    I find their arrogance astounding.

    1. Megan Massa’s webpage asserts “they are particularly interested in” etc.. But ordinary English grammar dictates that this should have read “they is” etc. Unless, of course, Dr. Massa suffers from multiple personality disorder. In that case, “are” would be acceptable in English, and we would all have to accept that Dr. Massa are more than one individual. This would bring up fascinating possibilities for their entry in sporting events, legal status, passport identification, tax liability, insurance coverage, and so on.

      1. Dr. Massa might merely be infested with an intestinal tapeworm. In that case, though, she should in normal speech refer to herself as “we”, not “I”. (“Speak for yourself!”, says the tapeworm.)

        Tapeworms are, of course, right up Dr. Massa’s alley (in a manner of speaking), being falsely regarded as non-binary. They are hermaphroditic, a handy adaptation to a usually solitary and lonely adult existence.

    2. But perhaps they FEEL their thesis is true, therefore it is. I hate the idea that at least two of these authors and the presidents of Harvard and UPenn, who both tried to dodge the Hamas slaughter of innocents, all present as female. Science and college presidencies based on feelings. Basing either almost solely on something so amorphous and transitory is not a direction that is going to lead to positive outcomes for either enterprise.

  2. Apologies if I’ve commented on this before. The 0.018% from Leonard Sax excludes the majority of what Fausto-Sterling called “intersex”: late-onset congenital adrenal hyperplasia, Turner and Klinefelter syndromes and other chromosomal disorders, and vaginal agenesis. But the 0.018% still includes disorders of people who are either male (with testes) or female (with ovaries). An example is complete androgen insensitivity in which males develop testes but have female secondary sex characters including breasts and genitals. These folks are not between the two sexes and not a third sex, but might be mistaken by others (and might view themselves) as female.

  3. The trouble with old-fashioned Biology is that it is full of distinctions between one category and another. For example, uncritically dividing subjects into “plant” and “animal” categories (or other hypersimplistic models) obscures relevant physiologies. When I was
    a grad student TA a millennium ago, one exam question I gave the undergrads showed a representative cell and asked: “Is this a plant or an animal cell?”. One student’s answer was “Yes”— an answer to which I gave full credit, thus anticipating Massa et. al. by a millennium.

  4. All i can note is in haste today:

    Eroticism is theorized by Marcuse – using arguments from Freud – to inhibit the liberation of man. See “Eros and Civilization”.

    Sex has a lot to do with eroticism.

    Queer Theory suggests everything has an erotic dimension.

    TL;DR eroticism for Liberation and Revolution; also “idea laundering”.

  5. I will start by recognizing that medicine is getting this all very wrong and is going into to some strange unscientific places in its obeisance to trans ideology. I agree that official medicine seems to buy into the idea that sex is not binary in order to provide intellectual support to the notion that children should be turned into simulacra of the sex they have come to think they are, and further that doctors in liberal western democracies should lose their licences or even go to jail if they disagree publicly. So medicine has lost the scientific and moral high ground on this. You don’t have to listen to us anymore until we reform.

    But concerning intersex alone, no person with an intersex condition violates the sex binary. Even species of worms etc. that are normally truly hermaphroditic simply have the two sexes in the same body. That doesn’t make them non-binary and it wouldn’t make such people non-binary either. You would need a third or spectral gamete and a third or “mixed” anatomic sex organ designed by natural selection to carry that gamete for sex ever to be non-binary. No human or any other animal has either of those, not even babies with ambiguous external genitalia. So the non-binary fraction is not 1 in 5600 but zero.

    Here’s my larger medical concern with that 1 in 5600 figure being likened to a tossed coin landing on its edge. If that happened in real life, we would just marvel at a rare event and repeat the toss to get a head or a tail. We ignore that literal edge case as an irrelevant outcome.* But in medicine, a baby born that way (or who is found later in life to have something like CAIS as Mike alludes to above) is still a human being. She still “counts” and needs, among other medical concerns, some thought about what sex she will be able to function or present in society as. The parents of an affected infant or older child will want to know, “So what sex is she really?” Most will choose to “be” (or remain) female (although often infertile) for various reasons I can’t elaborate in the space here. (And don’t forget there are far worse congenital anomalies and genetic metabolic diseases to be born with that entail suffering and early death.)

    So you can’t ignore the 1 in 5600 just because they are rare. All diseases are “rare” in that most people are healthy until late in life when things wear out. The person in front of you with an intersex condition has a 100% likelihood of having it. I prefer to think of intersex conditions as roughly the same probability as being dealt four of a kind in a five-card poker hand. If you are dealt that hand, you don’t just throw in your cards and ask for a re-deal because it’s rare. You play the hand. I don’t mean that being born intersex is like hitting the jackpot. I mean only that intersex is not an ignorable event just because it is rare. And nor is it non-binary.
    * Not necessarily. Suppose I flip a coin and invite you to “call it”. You call heads. I say nothing. It lands on its edge. Once you called heads, the two relevant outcomes became “head” and “not a head”. You lose.

      1. Not meaning that you are. I’m sorry for writing it to give that impression. It’s just that framing it as akin to a coin landing on its edge, as many writers do, encourages others to assume it can be ignored as not really challenging the binary simply because it’s rare. We call coin tosses binary because we can choose to ignore the edge outcome (except in my footnote case), even though the edge outcome itself shows that coin tosses aren’t truly binary. Intersex is a condition that tests the non-binary (because the visible genitals of some affected individuals “look” spectral) but on closer thought the binary nature of sex stands up. (This is an excellent example or the correct meaning of the expression, “The exception proves — tests — the rule.”) The equivalent in coin tossing would be where an edge outcome only looked like an edge. It could be shown, on further investigation, to have really fallen on one face or the other. Absurd but it shows how the analogy breaks down.

        Sex is not “in effect” a binary. It is a binary.

        The other way we doctors could finesse this is to say that intersex is a pathological condition, a birth defect and not “normal” development, and so should not be invoked as defying the binary. A cleft palate doesn’t rebut the anatomic principle that air has to be separated from food during swallowing. It’s just a mistake. Thing is, some people with intersex conditions feel, correctly for them, that they have nothing wrong with them and don’t want to be medicalized and possibly made worse. They feel “normal” in ways that children with cleft palates don’t. So standing up for the sex binary has to accommodate people who feel they themselves are part of the range of normal. They have intersex but can still be shown to be binary if they wish to be investigated.

        I’ll leave this here. Perhaps it’s more important to me than to others. I’m just disappointed that medicine is turning its back on biology and I don’t like to give anything up to the biology-deniers.

        1. This is an excellent example or the correct meaning of the expression, “The exception proves — tests — the rule.”

          No, it’s not. That is not what the expression means, despite “proving ground” for “testing ground” and German “prüfen” for “test”. (In German, the expression is “die Ausnahme bestätigt die Regel”, “the exception confirms the rule”. The connection with prove/prüfen for test seems to be an attempt to justify the wrong meaning.)

          Here are some proper examples: Free parking on Sundays. Only officers may leave the base on weekends. In other words, those are exceptions, which imply the existence of (or prove the existence of) the corresponding rules: in general, parking is not free and soldiers aren’t allowed to leave the base.

          The exception proves the existence of the rule. By stating something which is obviously an exception, the existence of the rule is demonstrated, and the rule is clear without having to be spelled out.

    1. “You call heads. I say nothing. It lands on its edge. Once you called heads, the two relevant outcomes became “head” and “not a head”. You lose.”

      Interesting – I’ll have to think that through.

      Sort of

      Heads OR Tails OR [ not heads AND not tails ]

      Weighted, of course…

  6. I read through the Massa, Aghi, and Hill article, but I must admit that I didn’t read it carefully. My initial impression is that the piece makes the common mistake of conflating the definition of something—sex, in this case—with the characteristics associated with that thing. Much of their piece seems hinge on how misleading or erroneous conclusions can result when research fails to take into account the imperfect correlation between a person’s sex and the characteristics typically associated with that sex. I don’t have any objection to making this general point, but this does certainly not mean that “”sex” is a specious category,” as the authors claim. (Why the authors insist on putting “sex” in quotes is beyond me.)

    The other thing that struck me is how blatantly ideological the piece is. It might better be labeled “opinion” than a research result, yet it seems to be considered a research article in the conference proceedings. Words like “deconstruction” and “intersection” abound, as does the word “hypersimplistic” (five times). It’s hard not to conclude that the paper is heavily influenced extra-scientific factors. This is underscored by the “call to arms” in the Conclusions. I’m glad that Singal (and others) are taking these authors to task.

  7. Nonbinary and gender nonconforming people are almost invariably members of one sex or the other, even if they don’t feel like it, and that’s a fact. If there’s any “pathologizing”, it’s done by bigots, not by a scientific definition.

    If people who identify as transgender suffer agonies because their mind is telling them they’re a different sex than they are — or because other people don’t accept that they’re of the opposite sex — this is a psychological disorder. How we deal with this mental condition is open, but sex is scientifically binary and objective.

    If, on the other hand, sex is a confused, nebulous concept with blurry boundaries and multiple ways of categorizing, then we must defer to self-perception: the people who identify as transgender are right. Science backs up their knowledge as an objective means of determining man/male woman/female. It’s an ignorant society then that’s disordered, and the refusal to accept self-identification is pathological.

    I think that’s the point of these arguments about biological sex.

    Notice though how the term “gender nonconforming “ is being thrown in with males who are purportedly women (or female,) females who are purportedly men (or male,) and people of either sex who claim to be neither man nor woman. It doesn’t belong there. Someone who’s GNC is simply someone who fails to adhere to typical social stereotypes about masculinity and femininity — such as a female mathematician or a man who likes to knit. This isn’t at all like a transgender identity.

    It’s being put in as cover, just like disorders in sexual development are being used as cover.

    1. Perhaps the paper is part of the social construction of sex – namely, the authors getting their ideas laundered in the literature as a stand-in for truth – because now, Julia “supremely intelligent writing” Serano (try a search for that quote) can cite it in a new piece of Queer doctrine he might write for the general Queer congregation and Outer Schools.

  8. “Actually, the figure of those who conform to the sex binary is about 99.982%”

    This is actually wrong. One or more nines is missing. The correct number is not 100.0%, but closer than 99.982%. Why not 100.0%? I know of two (very rare exceptions). CAIS persons don’t fit into the traditional sexual binary (at least I don’t think so). From a genetic standpoint, they are 46,XY males. However, they have a defective SRY genes and look very female. Of course, they are not really female either (no Ovaries, no Fallopian tube, no Uterus). This condition (CAIS) is fortunately very rare. A very small number of people are actually chimeras (I am excluding transplant patients). They have some 46,XX cells and some 46,XY cells. Another word for chimera is mosaic. These folks typically look like one sex or the other, but they have the cells of both on the inside.

    Note almost all ‘intersex’ people fit into the sexual binary. In some cases, ‘intersex’ people have ambiguous genitalia or even the ‘wrong’ genitalia. However, these folks (in almost all cases) have a sex and it is either male or female. For example, Caster Semenya was born with a vagina and thought (incorrectly) to be female. However, he is a 46,XY male with testes (internal), no ovaries, and no uterus. He has normal levels of Testosterone. In one area in the Dominican Republic, this is actually somewhat common. See “The extraordinary case of the Guevedoces”. The 5-ARD condition is somewhat common in this area. Semenya is also 5-ARD.

  9. I see that the proportion of “gender non-conformist” people among the world’s population is about 3% ( Gay people seem fine with their sex, and so aren’t in the category. We’re getting pretty worked up over ensuring that we all get confused over gender because of a very small subset of the population. I can’t help but think this is just a distraction at a time when we have so many real, global, issues and problems to solve. Sure, we should treat all people as we would want to be treated, and human rights should be guaranteed to all, so can’t we just agree on that and be done with it? 97% of the people on the planet are just fine with the gender they were born with and all we need to do is teach them to be fine with the 3% that aren’t.

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